Monday, April 28, 2008

More Than Sound Bites

It was the first time I had felt truly angry before entering a pulpit. As I sat on the rostrum, I faced an audience filled mostly with grief and sorrow. In the midst of the grief-stricken congregation were dealers and gangsters - full of contempt and flagrant disrespect for the necessary solemnity of the occasion. In the rear of the assembly sat a few smugly detached individuals who had come to Ft. Myers, Florida all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to report on the final chapter of a life that had fallen prey to the harsh reality of inner-city America. Both of the emotionally detached groups came to witness a spectacle. I had no intention of allowing one to be created. Nevertheless, I also knew I had to tell the truth about "K" - the one I had flown from Cleveland to bury - and that by telling the truth, I would enrage the gangsters who glared at me with menacing stares and I would also furnish the Cleveland reporters with material that would be the talk of the town for days to come. As I concluded my remarks I glanced towards the rear of the chapel and saw the reporters writing with enthusiasm and glee. I then looked towards the section filled with dealers and gangsters and saw unbridled fury. A few hours later I would learn that my passionate attempt to tell the truth with love and sincerity was boiled down to two sound bites: The gangsters spread the word on the streets that I had said dealers and gangsters deserve to die. The reporters provided a headline to the Cleveland paper that read,"Preacher Says Cop Killer in Heaven!" For a time, my entire life and ministry was summarized by those two sound bites. I was criticized by talk radio, vilified by street hustlers and looked on with suspicion by all kinds of folks who had no idea what I stood for. All because of two powerful, but inaccurate, sound bites! This life experience taught me in a very dramatic way that we must work harder at ensuring that we don't reduce our evaluations of public figures to caricatures based on mere sound bites.

This past weekend, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, has been back in the news and confronting evaluations of controversial statements he has made from the pulpit. In 2 past blog entries, I have addressed these comments. I took issue with his most circulated statements in my blog and still take issue with those statements today. Many who have a deeper familiarity with Dr. Wright have said such criticisms are unfair and do not paint a complete picture of who he is. With those thoughts in mind, and in light of my own "sound bite experience," I'd like to share some thoughts I have after further investigation.

Rev. Wright has been called unpatriotic when he has served his country for 6 years in the US Naval Service as a Marine and a Sailor and has a granddaughter who is currently serving in Iraq as of the writing of this entry. He has been called uncaring, when he has spent decades ministering to the poor and needy in his community and throughout the world. He has shown himself to be a true renaissance man, gifted in the arts and letters - teaching as well as preaching and encouraging people to pursue the American Dream with excellence and elbow grease. Based on the evidence I have seen, his patriotism, industry and care for those in need seem to be well established. It is a disservice to him and to the pursuit of truth to paint him as an uncaring, un-American, unsympathetic "bogey-man". Nevertheless, words do have meaning and impact and as a preacher of the Gospel and a public figure, Rev. Wright can be called into account for the statements he has made.

Rev. Wright and I come from different theological schools of thought. The ways in which we engage the Biblical Text differ greatly as does much of the way we apply it in our preaching. As I have taken the time to listen to his comments in context, I believe that his criticisms of government are rather partisan, and more of a political critique of administrations with whom he takes issue than of government in general. What he describes as the fallibility of government I would broaden to the fallibility of humanity and the sinfulness of humankind which has been demonstrated by politicians - and preachers for that matter - of every ethnic and political stripe. In my estimation, Rev. Wright is guilty of the same malady that skews the view of many political pundits. Once a political side has been chosen or alliance made, that side can do no wrong, and the side which is opposed can do no right. When discussing matter of race in particular, partisan bias offers no help, no solutions and prolongs the pain that most people who pursue racial healing are seeking to relieve. It is becoming increasingly clearer to me that when it comes to matters of race, though it is easier to deal with sound bites than substance it is totally counterproductive to the efforts of people who truly seek to build understanding.

It also seems to me that both speakers and listeners have a responsibility when controversial subjects like race are on the table. Speakers - particularly preachers and especially preachers who know they are being recorded - have an obligation to speak in a way that not only takes into account the audience seated in front of them, but the potentially broader audience of people who may not share their particular life experience. A wonderful man of God who has now gone on to his Eternal Reward, once told me that the real gift in addressing issues of race in public speaking is seen in those who are able to confront a mixed audience of ethnic groups regarding their shortcomings in pursuing unity while at the same time inspiring them to continue to press on together in achieving understanding. This kind of pursuit takes a willingness to engage in dialogues that are deep, complex, time consuming and exhausting. In other words, it takes hard work and perserverance.

In one sense, Rev. Wright has done us all a favor. He has once again exposed the gap of understanding on issues of race in this nation. If we can display the grit to keep coming to the table in love, and to attempt to confront even the ugliest scenarios in building bridges of understanding, perhaps we can make some progress. In any case, as listeners we must move beyond sound bites and carefully assess what a speaker says in the rightful context and not carelessly move to conclusions that digress beyond a speaker's actual words. As speakers, we must work hard not to set up a sound bite feeding frenzy with careless rhetoric that destroys the very progress we claim we are attempting to build. Otherwise, we will continue to be pundits full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Until next time...


Monday, April 21, 2008

The Tracks of Our Tears

This past weekend Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a major Indy Series race with her victory in the Indy Tokyo 300. Though small in stature, Ms. Patrick has a reputation for being as tough as nails on the track. She's not afraid of a challenge and she's aggressive enough to physically get in another competitor's face after a race if unsafe driving or unsportsmanlike conduct has been manifested. For that reason, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Ms. Patrick received her trophy as the winner and did something not normally seen in Indy racing, especially by her - she cried. As one might imagine, her tears elicited a few commentaries, one of which most appropriately pointed out that there have been numerous instances of tearful victories in the history of American sports. Michael Jordan wept after winning his first NBA title. Tiger Woods cried after winning his first victory after his father's death from cancer. In the alternate Hollywood universe of fictitious sports legends, even the certifiably iron-jawed Rocky Balboa not only cried after his first very close split decision loss to Apollo Creed, but literally howled after his victorious rematch effort with the immortal shout "ADRIAN!!"

Of course, in real life, the events that bring us to tears bring out the best and the worst in us, transform our personal histories and shape our personalities and life views. Last night, Luz and I settled down from a fairly busy day and watched the Oscar-winning bio-pics "Ray" and "Walk the Line" - the respective life stories of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. The lives of both men pivoted on the tragic losses of a brother during their childhoods - Ray Charles' younger brother and Johnny Cash's older brother. Both men unfairly blamed themselves for their brothers' deaths and their survivor's guilt haunted each of them for years, sending them into drug use and other empty pursuits in search of healing. Because of their destructive behavior both men teetered on the brink of disaster before coming to the realization that their pain and their tears had more power when used to connect and sympathize with others. Continuing to vent out of self-pity or hopeless despair not only didn't help them to heal, but dishonored the lives of the loved one's whose memories they so earnestly cherished.

We get a glimpse of the healing power of tears in an event shown in the movie "Ray". After many years of refusing to play his music in the state of Georgia where he was not allowed to perform before integrated audiences even after attaining world-wide fame, Mr. Charles is honored by the Georgia State legislature. Not only does the state offer an official apology, but his song, "Georgia on my Mind" is named as the official state song! Ray accepts the honor and apology and goes on to dedicate the rest of his life to serving others, giving an estimated 20 million dollars as well as countless hours of public service to those in need.

In like manner, Johnny Cash emerged from his personal dungeon with a new lease on life. Though only alluded to in the movie of his life, Johnny Cash's transformation as more than a "power of positive thinking" moment, but a true salvation experience. Mr. Cash not only realized his own limitations and the hopelessness of his self-centered pursuits, but he more importantly discovered the boundless forgiveness and restoration available through faith in Jesus Christ. His rescue immediately gave him a passion for rescuing others and led to his focus the rest of his natural life on those who needed hope but had been all but abandoned by those who said they had it. His new direction can be most clearly understood in the lyrics of his song "The Man in Black".

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.

The faith behind Johnny Cash's heart to comfort others is wonderfully explained in the apostle Paul's encouraging words in his second letter to the Corinthians:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

So, don't be afraid to show the tracks of your tears. I challenge you, however, to allow your testimony of tears - whether tears of joy or sorrow - to bring out your best. Remember, Jesus wept just before raising Lazarus from the dead. That same Jesus lives today and can change your tears of despair into tears of joy and tears of help. Then you can show others the Way to live beyond themselves and themselves enter into God's Comfort Zone which is available to anyone and everyone who asks. Until next time...


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Barney Rides Again!

Early this Sunday morning I dropped off our daughter Joana at her High School, Grosse Pointe North, to embark on a 4-day Choir trip to New York City. She and her schoolmates will not only be treated to see the sights, take in a couple of Broadway Shows and have the total NYC tourist experience, they will have the honor and privilege of singing in Carnegie Hall! Joana has been away before on church youth retreats and regional school events, but this trip is the opening of a new chapter - those preliminary signs that another Jackson Eagle will all too soon be leaving our comfortable and protected nest and heading out on her own. As this thought whirled around in my head, I was comforted by another strange idea - "At least I don't have to deal with Barney anymore!" When Joana was much younger, that overpoweringly Pleasant Purple Reptile lived up to his species name, Tyrannosaurus Rex - King Tyrant - by ruling our home with a Velvet purple fist for almost 2 years as Joana went from toddler to elementary aged child. Not a day went by during that period without Barney's effusive charms being in full display for hours of video on end! Any attempt to squelch his reign was met by a hysterical scream for , "BARNEY!! BARNEY!!" The King had his way again! I remember the absolute joy I felt on the fateful day Barney's reign ended. "Daddy" Joana began matter-of-factly, "I'm too big for Barney. He's for babies and I'm a big girl now!" If I had been thinking clearly, I would have realized the bitter-sweet nature of the moment. Instead, I was so consumed with Barney loathing that I missed the true significance of the moment and almost jumped with glee in celebration of his retirement form our home. Barney was through, and our lives would be back to normal!

13 years later, this Barney memory was fresh in my mind as I drove away from Grosse Pointe North High School on Sunday and contemplated Joana's amazing transformation from a child to a young woman with so much to offer and so much to enjoy. I also smugly considered that now that we have another toddler, how fortunate we were that kid's programming had so much more variety and sophistication now and Barney was old news - or so I thought.

Joana's being away has allowed our daughter Victoria to grow up some on her own and to establish a little independence. She has quit the bottle, insisted on helping us with household chores and shown a greater appreciation for the variety of ways she can choose to learn and be entertained. She can choose everything from Noggin to Playhouse Disney to the Nick, Jr. with countless choices of wholesome "edutainment" that we can all enjoy together. An amazing variety of programming available at the touch of a button. Nothing could have prepared me for the programming choice she made on Sunday evening as we settled down for some rest and some family TV time together.

"Mommy and Daddy", she stated confidently, "I want to watch Barney!" "OK Sweetheart", I replied, "we'll tune it to...BARNEY!" "What do you mean BARNEY?" My brain had suddenly locked up and I was in disbelief. Attempting to recover, I blurted out, "DO you mean Lem Barney, the Detroit Lions legend?" She looked at me with the strangest look and simply said, "No Daddy, Barney the Purple Dinosaur!" I turned to Luz and asked, "How did she hear about him? You mean, he's still on TV?" Luz calmly responded, "I guess so. After all, On Demand has a ton of classic programming including children's standards, so why wouldn't they include a program as classic as Barney?" I was speechless. Somehow, Barney was riding high again and now Victoria had 24/7 access to him via On Demand programming. How did he do it? How could he manage such a comeback?

After what seemed to be an eternity of the Purple One, when it was bedtime, Victoria asked for story from her Children's Bible and we opened up to the account of Jesus and his love for children. It's a very familiar passage where children rush to Jesus with delight and the disciples recoil in horror attempting to mute their fun and to keep Jesus at arms length. Jesus rebukes the disciples and forcefully commands them to let the children come to Him because their child-like faith is the kind of faith God desires for those who serve Him. Then Jesus embraces and blesses the children. When I settled down with Victoria and watched Barney on the video, it occurred to me that Barney has a wonderfully welcoming demeanor that children recognize and are drawn to. Barney is always ready to play, teach and to affirm in a way that is vital to a child's well-being. As I looked at Victoria's young face and thought back to Joana's face at that age, I realized, contrary to my personal preferences, I needed to encourage her enjoyment of Barney, not resist it. In fact, as the weather warmed up, I even found myself emulating Barney and joined Victoria at the playground, swinging on swings and sliding on slides - really acting like Barney - without the Dinosaur suit, of course! The importance of this attitude really hit me when Victoria and I got home. As we approached the end of the day, Victoria ran and got her children's Bible and asked me to read another story about Jesus. She was eager to hear what the Bible said, because she had seen it applied in very simple terms in our time on the playground Barney style. Imagine - a theological application from a purple dinosaur! So now, I am thankful for all the rich variety the Lord has allowed in my life, including that Purple Reptile who always has time for children. If Barney can carve out some time for kids, we can too! Let the children come to you and bless them all you can. You'll never regret the silly, child-like moments that yield a lifetime of healthy, loving grown-up fruit. Until next time,